We analyze the evolution of convective available potential energy (CAPE) and convective inhibition (CIN) in the days leading up to episodes of high CAPE in North America. The widely accepted theory for CAPE buildup, known as the advection hypothesis, states that high moist static energy (MSE) parcels of air moving north from the Gulf of Mexico become trapped under warm but dry parcels moving east from over elevated dry terrain. If and when the resulting CIN erodes, severe convection can occur due to the large energy difference between the boundary layer parcels and cool air aloft. However, our results, obtained via backward Lagrangian tracking of parcels at locations of peak CAPE, show that large values of CAPE are generated mainly via boundary layer moistening in the days leading up to the time of peak CAPE, and that a large portion of this moisture buildup happens on the day of peak CAPE. On the other hand, the free-tropospheric temperature above these tracked parcels rarely changes significantly over the days leading up to such occurrences. In addition, the CIN that allows for this buildup of CAPE arises mostly from unusually strong boundary layer cooling the night before peak CAPE, and has a contribution from differential advection of unusually warm air above the boundary layer to form a capping inversion. These results have important implications for the climatology of severe convective events, as it emphasizes the role of surface properties and their gradients in the frequency and intensity of high CAPE occurrences.
Severe convective events, such as thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hail storms, are among the most deadly and destructive weather systems. Although forecasters are quite good at predicting the probability of these events a few days in advance, there is currently no reliable seasonal prediction method of severe convection. We show that the buildup of energy for severe convection relies on both strong surface evaporation during the day of peak energy and anomalous cooling the night before. This progress represents a step toward understanding what controls the frequency of severe convective events on seasonal and longer time scales, including the effect of greenhouse gas–induced climate change.